Top 10: Actors Playing Themselves

Meta is in these days, good luck trying to deny it. It’s been steadily rising through the cinematic subgenric ranks since the end of the 1990’s but has fully exploded into the mainstream over the past few years. Throughout the Naughts, big screen meta – short for metatextual – experiences have ranged from highly self-reflexive content – Spike Jonze’s Adaptation – to suggesting it’s own components or flaws – Brad Pitt pointing to the corner of the film itself to acknowledge that it’s time for a spool change in Fight Club, characters rewinding and fastforwarding through Spaceballs while they’re actually in Spaceballs – and having characters deconstruct and identify the tropes of the genre that the film itself belongs to and trying to outsmart the villain by following what they’ve come to know from the movies – Wes Craven’s how-to-survive-a-slasher-movie, Scream.

But meta can date back even further to classics like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and to Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday where Cary Grant points at the character played by actor Ralph Bellamy and actually exclaims, “He looks like that actor, uh…Ralph Bellamy!” Brilliant little add-ons that give the movie an extra layer of depth, and bring what’s projected on the screen just a little bit closer to the audience. Viewers who caught the metatextual asides and are now quietly smiling to themselves.

Another element of meta that has probably been explored the most is casting Hollywood actors as themselves, or versions of themselves, within the narrative. It’s a hallmark of meta that can be noticed far more easily than more subtextual riffs, but when done correctly it can be just as, if not even more, effective.

This week saw the release of the exceptional new comedy, This is the End, written and directed by Superbad scribes, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. The new comedy classic follows the first few days of what seems to be the End of Days from the perspective of five Generation Y comedy icons – Seth Rogen, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride – all of whom are wading out the fire and brimstone inside James Franco’s house in the Hollywood Hills. Hilarity, death, and destruction all ensue over the 110-minute feature that never slows down to let you catch your breath. It’s one of the best balanced comedies I’ve ever seen, and the hardest I’ve laughed during a movie in probably a couple of years, but a lot of it comes from how the five actors bring the material past the initial gag of self-performance. Yes, they are all caricatures of their A-list selves, but they become a seamless balance of faux character and self-deprecating metabody. When necessary, they can retreat back into their actual selves and poke fun at everything from the safety of that point, and, thankfully, the conceit of each star playing themselves is never forced down our throats, but instead appears in short bursts (“Seth, that was a better performance than you’ve given in your last six movies, where was that in Green Hornet? Jonah, you’re an Oscar-nominated person, you’ve gotta sell that shit…”). What ties it all together, however, is when the seams start to show and you can tell how much fun the five actors must have had making a movie together.

While This is the End may never be matched as far as movies with actors playing themselves go, it definitely would not exist without certain movies having paved the way first. Below, you’ll find ten great performances by actors playing themselves. We’re keeping it strictly to movies since branching out to television would make it too easy – Ron Howard narrating every one of the Bluth family’s…mistakes on Arrested Development or James Cameron’s hilarious arc on HBO’s Entourage. See if your favorite self-performance made our list:

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Neil Patrick Harris, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
Before How I Met You Mother, before the Tony’s, and even before he came out of the closet, Neil Patrick Harris was just another child star with a hit show that seemingly ran forever and when it came to an end he faded into bit parts and meat-less supporting characters – see Starship Troopers – that everyone hoped would be enough service until he evaporated completely. But NPH had a different plan. As a coked up, sex-addicted expansion of himself, NPH played up the ‘former celebrity syndrome’ and garnered arguably the most laughs out of any cast member from the entire stoner comedy. His straight faced crudity and immersive balls-to-the-wall attitude was as shocking for viewers who knew of NPH’s former fame as it was to novice viewers who raved about him for years to come. He was such a standout, that they brought him back for the far weaker second and third installments of the Harold and Kumar trilogy. Thankfully, Harris didn’t bank on the success of these movies and checked back into the public consciousness humbly and happily. With 8-plus seasons of a hit television show and the annual gig of hosting a major awards special, being openly gay was just the icing on the cake of Neil Patrick Harris.

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John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich 
Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich! Imagine being a well-known Hollywood character actor and getting a call one day asking if a film can use your rights not only for an image, but also for the title of the movie which follows a puppeteer who accidentally discovers a portal that will transfer anybody into your mind and see what it’s like to be you for all of fifteen surreal minutes before you get vomited out onto the glory that is the New Jersey Turnpike…oh yea, and you get an offer to be in the movie as…wait for it…yourself! Prepare for lots of self-deprecation and a wildly creative metaphor for the public’s obsession with vicariously living life through celebrities’ action where you get to be the template! Doesn’t that sound like fun? John Malkovich obviously thought so. The character actor is money in the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaboration and set a new standard for himself as not only one of Hollywood’s most eccentric showmen, but as a comedy actor and a humble individual among the Tinseltown excess. This is being a metabody at its most meta.

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David Bowie, Zoolander
Ben Stiller’s timeless comedy features a plethora of Hollywood’s most recognizable popping up as themselves, but a small handful remain the most memorable. While some may vouch for Billy Zane’s brief appearance, Zane’s thunder is quickly pulled out from under him when David Bowie volunteers to judge the ‘Walk Off’ between hot-right-now Hansel (Owen Wilson) and Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller). It’s a bravado turn of iconic, larger-than-life self-importance and the movie handles Bowie’s appearance with a great balance of cool and awe. It’s mostly a cameo, but one of the very best in recent memory. Plus, Bowie’s a hell of an actor anyway, see Labyrinth and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, where he’s barely recognizable as the stoic Nikola Tesla.

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Ray Charles, The Blues Brothers 
Half stunt casting, half-necessity, the SNL-based buddy musical action comedy (that’s a mouthful) features a hardy collection of the 20th Century’s greatest solo artists, including the late James Brown and First Lady of Song, Aretha Franklin. But those two musical guests don’t play themselves, it’s only Ray Charles who appears as himself – the aptly named blind piano shop owner, Ray. Before Ray bursts into song with the titular brothers in blue, Jake and Ellwood (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), R.C. first hobbles onto the scene as one of Chicago’s greatest piano proprietors, with some con to spare. Jake and Ellwood point out a piano, “Tell me a little about this electric piano,” to which Ray quickly responds, “Ah, you have a good eye, my man.” A subtle jab at the fictionalized Ray’s potential fake blindness then leads to the hilarious line, “2000 bucks and it’s yours. You can take it home with you. As a matter of fact, I’ll throw in the black keys for free.” The one of kind soul singer drops comic nuggets with ease and then does what he does best when he lets it rip on said electric piano. It’s a key scene in what remains the best SNL skit-turned-movie to date.

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Stan Lee, Mallrats
Stan Lee is no stranger to cameos as he ‘Hitchcock’s’ his way into about 90% of Marvel’s films as unnamed bystanders with maybe 2-3 lines of dialogue at most, but in Kevin Smith’s sophomore effort, Mallrats, he appears in an extended supporting role as a hopeless romantic, sage-like version of himself. Cult director and comic book aficionado, Smith, doesn’t hide his demi-god affection for Mr. Lee, but the tongue-in-cheek sappy dialogue that fills this particular scene, where Stan Lee gives the aching Brody (Jason Lee) some relationship advice, flows like the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon giving Lee the best written work he’s ever had. First he fields Brody’s bizarrely inquisitive ponderings about superhero sex organs, before confiding in Brody that all of Marvel’s most famous characters are based on emotional states that Lee has found himself in from time to time, most of them stemming from a tumultuous relationship he shared with a particular girl. “I’d give it all up, for just one more day with her.” It’s nicely capped when he appears behind Ethan Suplee’s Willam Black and points out, nearly immediately, the sailboat that Willam has desperately been trying to see for the entire movie. “Oh, a sailboat!”

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Bob Barker, Happy Gilmore
Dancing with the Stars by way of PGA, The Price is Right’s Bob Barker appears as Happy’s (Adam Sandler) golfing partner during one of the movie’s funniest sequences. Given a small push by Freaks & Geeks Joe Flaherty (“Jackass!”), the partnership quickly breaks down resulting in a brutal fistfight between Barker and Gilmore. “The price is wrong, Bob!” It’s a comic sequence that builds and escalates to a gut-busting finish when the aged Barker beats the living hell out of Happy. Sandler’s early flicks were well known for their celebrity appearances (Billy Idol almost made this list for The Wedding Singer), and while his movies have definitely suffered over the past decade, he’s consistent at bringing in big name self-performers – Al Pacino in Jack and Jill and Vanilla Ice in That’s My Boy. Barker, however, remains the best of the bunch.

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Chuck Norris, Dodgeball: An True Underdog Story / Bill Murray, Zombieland
Yea, we’re cheating, what are you going to do about it? Arguably the two funniest celebrity WTF cameos of the first decade of the 2000’s. In the riotous Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn competition comedy, Walker Texas Ranger himself appears during the climax when the Average Joe’s find a loophole in the Dodgeball rules to overturn their forfeit, but it will come down to votes from the three judges. Norris, as himself, casts the tie-breaking vote allowing the Average Joe’s to play which results in them beating Globo-Gym during a sudden death match. During the film’s epilogue, an overweight White Goodman appears watching an Average Joe’s commercial on TV. “Fuck Chuck Norris,” he mumbles before the credits roll. In Ruben Fleisher’s surprise hit, Zombieland, when the quartet of main characters arrive at Bill Murray’s home intending to use it as shelter, they encounter a very much alive Bill Murray pretending to be a zombie. He smokes weed, quotes Ghostbusters and does a whole lot of other straight-faced hilarious things before he wrongfully decides to play a joke on the timid Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg) and sneaks up behind him pretending to be a zombie. Colombus jumps up frightened and shoots Murray in the chest with a shotgun. It’s a shockingly violent moment of hilarity and the best thing Murray has done in recent years outside of his regular appearances in Wes Anderson’s films.

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Cecil B. DeMille, Sunset Boulevard
A classic in its own right, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, is arguably the oldest, fully meta piece of Hollywood filmmaking ever made. A breathtaking noir, expertly written and directed by Wilder, starring former silent star Gloria Swanson as former silent star Norma Desmond and struggling actor William Holden as struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis and director Erich Von Stroheim as the cold and eerie butler, Max Von Mayerling, Boulevard reaches a meta peak when director Cecil B. DeMille appears during the film’s final minutes as himself. A perfect example of a film that is all about the journey rather than the destination, which is made clear right from the start, the film’s final minutes are heart-thumpingly sinister and creepy as Swanson completely transforms into a reborn movie star and her onscreen alter-ego, Desmond, basks in the limelight she’s happily regained for all the wrong reasons. “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” cue Swanson’s deranged meander toward our very eyes as the film fades.

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Mike Tyson, The Hangover
This was a cameo that was spoiled at the bookend of the film’s trailer back in 2009, but it ended up not really mattering once the full film was released. Tyson’s role was more than just a one-scener, he popped up a couple times throughout the movie and made quite the entrance singing Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and one-punching Alan (Zack Galifianakis) right to the floor. Tyson got to flex his comic muscles and was a gold addition to the wonderful supporting cast Todd Phillips’ exceptional 2009 comedy.

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Michael Jordan, Space Jam
We saved the best for last. Here at Reel Reactions, we all grew up watching Space Jam and it still holds a very dear spot in each of our hearts. A childhood defining film bringing together the superstar athlete Michael Jordan and the timeless Looney Tunes franchise, Space Jam was as inspired as it was fun and it’s sentimentality has allowed it to remain a classic in our cinephilic eyes for seventeen years. As the centerpiece, Jordan is perfect, becoming a living, breathing piece of NBA mythos every bit as larger than life as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. A fair warning to any athlete who attempts to recreate the magic of Space Jam (we’re looking at you Shaq!)

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What are your favorite self-performances?

Article by Mike Murphy

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